We open onto a large office in what looks to be Moscow in the 1890s. It could be anywhere in the East though, anywhere from Potsdam to Petersburg. The office appears busy; clerks filing, apprentices bustling, managers shouting instructions and reprimands that go generally unheard and unacted upon–unheard not out of rebellion, nor compromised auditory canals, but rather because the generalized cacophony of the office space is such that the collective action set cannot but unfold without coordination or direction.
The office is draughty and usually cold, although an occasional over-active heat pipe burbles out a bit of local warmth for certain fortunate corners. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with filing cabinets; the major task of the office is simply to inspect, stamp, classify, and file an endless stream of nominally related documents. It is mid-fall, nearly harvest season. Summer’s bounty this year has been acceptable, and the local populace will have food for the holidays. Inside, however, the mood is one of permanent resignation to circumstance.
You found me on the other side of a loser’s winning streak/ where my thoughts all wander further than they should
The office’s hierarchy is complex, following rules of its own. Those at the bottom of the ladder are blissfully unseen and operate without oversight or sanction unless transgressing in a manner so egregious that the neighbours become involved. Those in the middle-lower classes are a little more visible; their seating, for instance, is of great importance. Members of this class are ever being told that their stool has been moved to another section of the office. Reason is neither given nor sought. Transience is the way of the world, and is widely accepted.
The scene opens in the morning, just after the workers arrive. At a large oak table, two members of this class sit, within mere inches of one another. One of these is a thin man–the other, a Teutonic Knight. Both have piles of papers left over from the day before in their work spaces, spaces delineated by a crack in the oak. One of the papers from the thin man’s zone has shifted by a fraction of an inch overnight, whether on account of the draft or the vagaries of the cleaning staff is unknown.
The Teutonic Knight turns to face the thin man.
“I think you forgot something in my space,” he says.
“I didn’t forget anything in your space, “replies the thin man, “if you are referring to this piece of paper, it has shifted marginally and is abutting the crack which separates my zone from yours.”
“You have forgotten something,” insists the Knight. “Take it away.”
The thin man sighs and removes the paper. Good money after bad, he thinks to himself, applying a concept he has learned recently at the card tables, tables which he has, perhaps, been frequenting a little more often than he might want to admit to his blessed mother or dear widowed sister. The Knight knows nothing of the gambler’s demi-monde, spending his evenings as he does in endless rows over minor matters with one of the succession of women he sees. The thin man has, on the other hand, managed to stay out of the clutches of the worst money-lenders and knee-cappers in the city thus far. His taste, in the last analysis, may run more to the risque than to risk per se. In any case, the skirmish over, the knight withdraws from the field of battle, content in his triumph. The thin man looks at the clock. These days, everything seems to take all morning.
Scene Two (a few days later)
Well I was drinkin’ last night with a biker/ and I showed him a picture of you/ I said “Pal get to know her, you’ll like her”/ seemed like the least I could do
The office has a kind of canteen, an open space where weak tea and an occasionally edible biscuit or two have been reported. Here lives another man, a man from the south. His status with the company is ambiguous–a matter of no little gossip. Tales are told of whirlwind romances, payments under the table, mutually compromising material. No one really knows. This southerner spends his days reading and drinking tea in a most relaxed fashion. Good work if you can get it, muses the thin man. The thin man and the southerner are allies of the kind that sometimes arise during wartime conditions. The details of his ally’s dalliances and contractual complexities are only of a general interest to the thin man, who is however curious what value the southerner is seen to be providing to the company. Literacy is good and all, but the filing by god, the filing waits for no man.
Sometime that fall, the southerner pulls the thin man aside, for a talk. His manner is furtive, his words oblique. The thin man’s time with the company is limited, he whispers. His number is up. Time to hit the bricks, pal.
The thin man takes this news in stride. The tables beckon and he’s met a woman, a lady of the evening, perhaps, yet classy–demure, yet perfectly capable of looking after her own interests. He has only seen her a few times, true, yet there are possibilities.
Of course being sans salary is not likely to widen that particular possibility set. So when the southerner leans in and whispers low, the thin man listens close.
“There is a man, a man you may meet,” says the southerner. “You must not ever tell anyone I told you this. The man will be under a bridge on a high holiday. There will be revelry. He may make you an offer.”
Gambling man he may be, but the thin man is confused.
“What should I do?”
“Stay alert. Pay attention. I can say no more.”
Easy to say, harder to execute, thinks the thin man. Alert for what? A man under a bridge is easy enough to spot, however the southerner seemed to be referring to another matter, another occasion where attention will be needed to carry the day. The thin man files the conversation away, and resolves to stay open to what a situation that appears to have elements of fluidity. It seems like the least he could do.
Scene Three (a few weeks later)
In bar light/ she looked alright/ in day light/ she looked desperate
The thin man waited out the fall, his gambling limited to the occasional dice game at the Metropole. The southerner’s sage advice, if not quite forgotten, had faded into the general background of the holiday season. The city filled with lights and good cheer, and the denizens of the office slipped into a gentle numbness even more pronounced than usual. The demure lass was deft enough to dangle enough hints and intimations to keep the thin man hooked. You get what you get, he mused, when were it ever otherwise? A couple of hot streaks at the tables allowed him to further postpone thoughts of the future. He would buy a round or two for a barfly girl he knew–at least she was around. Eggnog, that was her tipple.
One day a upper-middle manager summoned the thin man into a meeting. Called him by name no less. The meeting started crisply.
“Thin man, as you know you number is up here at the company.”
Hit the bricks, pal.
“As a result, we won’t be renewing your employment next year.”
Uh huh…ok, eggnog time then.
“I want you to understand that you won’t be employed by the company next year.”
What was that? “Stay alert,” so said the southerner.
“You won’t be offered a contract with the company. Do you understand?”
Unnecessarily repetitive. Information is being underlined. Pay attention.
“I understand perfectly,” said the thin man. And he thought that he did.
Scene Four (the next day)
It was in Pittsburgh, late one night/ lost my hat, got into a fight/ I rolled and I tumbled, ’til I saw the light/ went to the Big Apple, took a bite
After receiving the news of his impending termination, the thin man felt he had relatively little to lose. He spent the next day in the canteen talking with the southerner. The Tutonic Knight still reigned supreme over the crack in the oak; there was no there there in any case. The southerner read philosophy, remained on the payroll.
“I’m attending a holiday party,” said the southerner. “It will be this Saturday. Under a bridge in the dead center of town.”
“There will be a man there. If you decide to come to the party, meet me on the street just above the bridge. I will act as if our meeting was coincidence. Then, I will take you to the man under the bridge. He is waiting to meet you.”
The thin man had but one true weakness, a byproduct, perhaps, of over-indulgence in games of chance. His weakness, he knew, was for the unexpected. For the unplanned. For, essentially, the random.
“Sure. What time Saturday.”
“OK. I will present myself on the street as instructed,” said the thin man.
Scene Five (Saturday)
I said hey Senorita that’s astute/ why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute
On Saturday, the thin man arrived on time as promised. The southerner materialized on the street just then.
“Ah, my friend, what an amazing coincidence. I was just heading down under this here bridge to see a man about a mule. Perhaps you would like to join me. He may have an extra one for sale.”
“A mule might help me get out of town in a hurry,” said the thin man. “Let’s see what’s happening.”
Under an inky moon the two men descended, passing through waves of people, men and women, reveling in the moonlight and watching the circus. It was cake they ate, cake it was. The density of erotic micro-transactions formed an exact square to the paucity of actual action. Such was the slightly unkind thought that ran through the head of the thin man as he navigated the pretty party people. In any case, the locus of action was ever in motion.
They pushed on, through the crowd, and reached the lowest point of the city. Here, a man with a coat of many colors stood, in pointed shoes and a tricorne. The host with the most, he held court to a motley crew of the pockmarked and the lame–the beautiful people of our fair city.
“This is a thin man,” said the southerner to the tricorne.
The man with the tricorne folded the thin man into a close embrace. “You will be my new best friend,” said he.
“Naturally,” said the thin man. “I think we will be very good friends indeed.”
“Now,” said the tricorne, “I have a little talent business, providing the right kind of people to the company. You are my new best friend. I will provide you to the company. As talent. That I found.”
“Of course you will,” said the thin man. “Wither the eggnog, si vous plais?”
For the southern man. Thank you for putting up with my nonsense over all these years.
Works cited/ referenced:
Craig Finn, “Sequestered in Memphis.”
Dawes, “From a Right Angle.”
The Grateful Dead, “Hell in a Bucket.”
Paul Simon, “Gumboots.”
The Traveling Wilburys, “Margarita,”